Dr. Sara Jane Pieper loves using her Northstar Camper as a mobile quarantine vehicle and taking her sons on weekend adventures in Utah. Don’t miss how her first camper was totaled and the epic trip she took to pick up the Northstar. This one is a heart warmer.
If you’re in sore need of a positive and uplifting story, we have a restorative lifestyle feature for you. It won’t cure the aching headlines, but it might help to heal the soul – even if just for a minute or two.
About a month ago we were copied on an email sent to Rex Willett, President of Northstar. Dr. Sara Jane Pieper wrote, “I own a 2013 Northstar Adventurer. My kids say I love it more than them! I work in healthcare. It’s my mobile quarantine vehicle when I’m on call. Thanks for making such a great camper!”
We very excitedly requested an interview with Dr. Pieper. She agreed, and her story became so much more than we expected. In her email, she left out how her first camper was totaled, traveling 2,250-miles cross-country with her son to pickup the Northstar, and the heroic work she is doing at two hospitals during the Covid-19 situation. She even throws in a few excellent camping recommendations.
After all that sinks in, perhaps the best part of Dr. Pieper’s story is how much she truly loves her truck camper and truck camping. To relax, she says that she enjoys doing routine maintenance on her Northstar. No wonder her kids think she loves her camper more!
Get ready for one unbelievably fun and heartwarming story. Thanks for reaching out Dr. Pieper. And keep up the good work!
Above: Dr. Sara Jane Pieper’s Northstar Adventurer and Ford-F350 at the hospital
How did you get into camping?
When I was in middle school, my mother took me and my older sister on a two-month trip from our home in Texas to the western United States and Canada. We had a 1976 Ford F-150 with a shell and we slept in the back. Mom and I were on the bed and my sister was on a crosswise platform behind the cab that my father had crafted for the occasion. My sister was much shorter than me.
It was a magical trip. I had never really been out of southeast Texas, and I was captivated by the mountains and the cool, dry air. I knew then that I needed to live in the west. We took a similar trip a few years later, just my mother and I, and some shorter trips to Colorado in between. I was hooked.
At the age of 24, I decided to quit my professional job and travel around the United States with my dog, Jake, in my Toyota truck with a shell. My father helped me build a platform to sleep on with tons of storage below. I did this for a year, stopping for the ski season to live in a house and work in a ski town. If I had owned a truck camper then, I might still be traveling!
When my kids were little, I started doing the same type of camping with them in our 2006 Ford F-350; just a mattress in the back and a shell. Well, I was older and didn’t sleep quite as well, especially with two wet and crazy dogs.
After one particular trip where I just didn’t get a bit of sleep, I decided to investigate options. I looked at vans, motorhomes, and trailers, but I loved being a turtle with my home on my back, ready to go at a moment’s notice.
I looked at truck campers and found my little home. In 2016, I found a lovely 2014 used Palomino Bronco 1250. It was like new. I drove up to Idaho to pick it up.
We had such wonderful adventures in that camper. It really sold me on pop-up truck campers for the feeling of camping and the profile for 4×4 roads. The Palomino had minimal bells and whistles, and definitely no bathroom. It was a perfect introduction to truck campers.
The fate of your Palomino is quite the story. Tell us what happened.
I loved the Palomino. I never considered getting another camper until it was accidentally totaled in 2018. My husband took my truck with the camper on it for an errand, and forgot to latch down the pop-up’s roof. It blew off on I-80 at freeway speed. I am so incredibly grateful that no one was hurt. I went through the stages of grief losing my camper that summer.
How did he tell you about the accident?
I am lucky to be married to the most stable and rational human being. As soon as it happened, he pulled over and made sure everyone was okay. Then, the highway department came to the scene and everything was cleared.
I was in a meeting at work and he called me. I didn’t answer, so he sent me a text telling me to respond. On the phone, he said, “I am really sorry this happened. Everyone is okay. They are now picking up the roof and we’ll fix it. So, we’ll be fine.” He is not one to panic or get emotional.
Unfortunately, the damage was such that the camper was totaled. That pop-up being totaled led me to my beautiful Northstar Camper.
Which is a hard side truck camper. Why did you decide to go with a hard side?
When we were looking for a new camper, my youngest son really wanted a hard side camper instead of a pop-up. I was happy to accommodate that request to keep him camping with me.
Above: Their first trip with their Northstar, south of Moab, Utah
That certainly makes sense. Why Northstar?
I am really taken by Northstar’s build quality. The reputation of the company is amazing. It also seemed to be just right for my needs and desires. The weight was perfect for my truck, too.
I thought I would like the Northstar Laredo, but the Northstar Adventurer seemed perfect. It’s open and airy. It does not have as much water capacity as I would like, but I can deal with that. We also needed the bunk for my growing boys.
At first, I didn’t want a camper with a bathroom, but I changed my tune about that. I didn’t want to deal with the stinky slinky and washing it out, so I searched for a camper with a cassette. I like that I can dump the cassette at home.
I have boys who use the outdoors, so the smaller capacity isn’t a big deal. I wanted something convenient. I also feel comfortable using a cassette. It’s easy to use and there is no smell. I love having a toilet in my camper.
I spent entirely too much time online searching for a used camper that fit the bill, and finally found our Northstar. That’s a wonderful story.
Tell us the story of how you got your Northstar.
I was online and found an amazing camper for sale in New Jersey. I talked to the sellers and we did some FaceTime videos to check out the camper. I knew I wanted it, but wasn’t sure how I could get it. I called various transport companies, but no one was willing to do it. I even put some feelers out on the forums, but I had no luck.
I knew that I couldn’t go another summer without camping. Finally, I decided that I would just drive out to get it, and for fun, I took my 12 year old son with me. We left on a Friday afternoon after school.
I remember we were just past Evanston, Wyoming, and I said to myself, “Sara Jane Pieper, you have done some poorly thought-out things in your life. Is it smart to be on the road traveling 2,200 miles to get a truck camper you’ve never seen? Girl, you should turn around and go home.”
We got to Rawlins, Wyoming and they had one hotel room left. They told me that it would cost $300 for the night. If it had been any other situation I wouldn’t have done it.
We woke up early every morning to get on the road before dawn and stop before dark. Once in Nebraska, to keep ourselves busy we talked about all the crops we saw. Then, we counted all the lakes on I-80. We talked about if we would want to live in this place or that place. We listened to audio books much of the way, which is one of our favorite activities while traveling.
My son was the navigator and kept telling us how much further we had to go. We made the 2,250 mile trip in 2.5 days. Those were some long days of driving, but we had so much fun! It was neat that the sellers, like us, live just one exit off I-80, just 2,250 miles away from us. We made it New Jersey on Monday.
What was it like meeting the sellers?
They were educators and were at work when we arrived, but lived only 15-minutes from the town where my dad worked when I was in college. We drove into Boonton and looked around. My son and I enjoyed the funny decorated dogs on the main street in front of the buildings. Then we went back to pick up our camper.
Road magic definitely kept happening on this trip. When we met the sellers we found out that their son was young and our kids got to play together. They were the nicest people. We still keep in touch with them. It was amazing to make new friends and such a relief after driving so far!
On Monday, we spent the afternoon putting the camper on the truck. They made dinner for us and invited us to spend the night in their house, but I was too excited and wanted to sleep in the camper.
Above: Touring New York’s Central Park during the trip to pick up the camper
The next morning, they took us to the train station so we could go into New York City and explore for the day. My son had never been there, so we took in all the usual sights. Late in the afternoon, I put him on a plane from Newark, New Jersey to Salt Lake International airport, all by himself. It was hard for me to do that, but he was excited to fly by himself.
The sellers picked me up at the airport and took me back to their house, made me dinner again, and I left in the morning. I still stay in touch with the sellers and regularly tell them how much I appreciate them providing me with such a great camper.
My son still talks about our adventure as one of the best weekends ever. It was grand fun! And now I own a Northstar Adventurer. The first year we had the camper, we spent more than 38 nights out camping. My kids say I love it more than them!
Above: Sara Jane on top of the camper, pouring hot water on the cover to get the camper loaded for a New Year’s trip. Going out for a week with the kids, to somewhere, anywhere, warmer!
How does your camper help you with your day to day life as an Ob-Gyn?
I work as an Ob-Gyn here in Salt Lake City, so I frequently spend nights at the hospital on call. Some calls are very busy and I know that I will be up most of the night, but others are less so and I can count on getting more sleep.
I usually work at a big tertiary care hospital in Salt Lake City. This year, I started taking my truck camper to work as my mobile sleeping quarters. I can get up and be where I need to be in just minutes, and I sleep so much better.
The call rooms can be loud with overhead pages, slamming doors, people talking outside the room and of course, the crunchy pillows and sheets. I love my company and they take great care of us, but call room bedding just isn’t the same.
I got a little teary the first morning I woke up in the camper at the hospital because I felt so incredibly grateful to be safe and sound. I was warm and cozy in my camper. It was pretty awesome.
So, even though you had a camper in the past, you just started using your camper as a mobile sleeping quarters this year. Where did that idea come from?
I felt less comfortable doing parking lot and Walmart overnights in a pop-up. There’s not much stealth about it. I keep safety in mind.
Last year I started taking call at a smaller hospital about 30-minutes away. I have to be at the hospital when I’m on call. That’s when I realized that I could sleep in my camper.
I’m still right there at the hospital, but I can be more comfortable in my bed and have my own food in my refrigerator. My temperature control in my camper is better than the call room because it is not well regulated. And I actually sleep better in my camper than I sleep at home.
I prefer to take a shower in my camper because I have everything there. I don’t have to bring things into a locker room. It is really nice in the hospital, but it’s my stuff in my space in the camper. I started doing this last fall when I started working at the new hospital.
At the bigger hospital where I work, I take different types of calls. Sometimes a patient can’t go to the operating room for a few hours, so I can go out to relax in the camper. If a surgery is at 2:00am, I can go to the camper to get some sleep before surgery. I feel safe there in the hospital parking lot.
With Ob-Gyn, minutes count during emergencies. I can always stay in the call room if I have to, but I love having the flexibility. When my camper is in the lot, everyone knows I’m there. I can be in the hospital in two minutes.
You said that you were on call and that’s why you stay in your camper. Are you on call because you deliver babies and you don’t know when you will be needed?
I’m just a regular Ob-Gyn but, with my personal practice, I have complex gynecological and surgical patients. My partners deliver babies. When I’m on call I mainly deliver babies. We all cover the ER for people who don’t have a doctor. There may be miscarriages, ovarian torsions, and surgical interventions that happen in the middle of the night. That’s my ER work.
I also have regular clinic hours during the week. I also have OR days when I do surgeries. Then, I am also on call. When I’m on call for the other hospital, I drive there and mainly do obstetrics, which is pregnancies and deliveries. I also have an administrative role that I started with in April.
Above: Sara Jane with co-workers Cory and Jamie
How has Covid-19 impacted your work?
During Covid, my truck camper has really become my mobile quarantine camper. I stay in the call rooms when I need to, but having my truck camper available makes the long days and nights so much more comfortable for me.
At first, it was so hard because we didn’t know what to expect with coronavirus. Not knowing and waiting for a surge to come was difficult.
You may think that hospitals are dangerous places right now, but I feel safer at the hospital than at a grocery store or Walmart. At the hospital, we screen people, everyone wears a mask, and everywhere is sanitized.
Health care workers constantly talk about Covid, so we know what we’re doing and why. There is not that same level of awareness at a Walmart or grocery store.
Our hospital gives Covid tests to people who are coming in for procedures. That could be for surgeries and/or for pregnant people.
If someone is Covid positive we wear different PPE (personal protective equipment). Even before Covid we were still very cautious, especially during flu season. Protecting yourself helps to stop the spread and reduces exposure.
During Covid, how do you go home and keep your family safe?
It’s hard for my kids to socially distance, but they do it because they understand the importance of being responsible for others.
I feel good about what I’m doing to stay protected. I wear street clothes in the hospital and change everything. I put my clothes in a safe place and, before I go home, I put my scrubs in the laundry and change back.
If I am working with Covid positive patients, I take more precautions showering and cleaning up. I don’t wear a watch or earrings, and I don’t wear makeup because it will soil the N95 masks. We are trying to be protective of PPE.
My family sees my camper as my quarantine vehicle and tells me that I’ll be out in the camper if I’m exposed. If something happens, I would rather be in my truck camper and leave my family in the house.
I also realize that, if I get sick, then all my partners have to cover me and the work I do. For health care workers, getting Covid has so many downstream effects. I hope people think about it and how their behavior affects other people. Wearing a mask is not about you.
I am accustomed to wearing a mask because of the job I do. I understand people not wanting to wear a mask in the summer, especially in a humid place. It’s uncomfortable, but I think it’s a small price to pay for us to protect each other.
If you have it and expose someone, they might go home to someone who had a kidney transplant and is then compromised. It’s important that we all protect each other.
Do the hospitals you work at let you stay overnight there?
Yes, they do. It’s another place where the truck camper is the king of all RVs. It is very versatile. My truck is my daily driver. There is a big difference between driving into the parking lot with a truck camper versus a 30-foot Airstream. They are seen very differently. One is a truck with a camper on it and one has a big trailer. My rig is stealthier. I have not seen other RVs in physician parking areas.
Above: Sara Jane and her boys at Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming
Do you still have time to use your camper with your family?
It’s gotten busier since I added the administrative role. But, I do commit time for camping. My kids like going on trips with me. I’ll take one and then the other.
We’ll leave Saturday morning and come back Sunday afternoon, and we’ll sometimes take one of our three dogs with us.
There are so many great places to go camping here in Utah. Here in Salt Lake City, I drive a couple of hours and I’m in a fabulous place where I can get away from everything.
Above: River Rafting near Cody, Wyoming
We also do some longer trips. Last year the boys and I spent two weeks in Wyoming and South Dakota, which was great. We have spent many Spring Breaks in the wilds of Utah boondocking and hiking canyons. We have also spent a week at a time in LA, doing what we call urban camping to spend time at amusement parks. Dockweiler is the best place in LA to camp!
Why is Dockweiler the best place in Los Angeles to camp?
A few years ago we went there. My kids got out of school in mid-May. I said, “Let’s go to LA and do some amusement parks because I love them”. I was looking for an RV park in LA that was near Universal Studios. There is nothing interesting in the area but Dockweiler. It is literally underneath the long international runway of LAX and it feels like you can reach up and touch the airplanes.
You camp right on the beach and can bike to the Santa Monica pier. It was $65-75 a day, which is expensive but, in Orange County, it was over $100 a night. It’s an interesting place and everyone should try it once.
We have also spent some time at the Circus Circus campground in Las Vegas. We liked it there because we could take in some shows and hit the indoor amusement park. The kids were weirdly fascinated by the strip. Urban camping is not my favorite type of camping, but my kids like it and we still have fun.
Above: Boondocking near JEM trails in Hurricane, Utah in January
Where do you enjoy truck camping in Utah?
A majority of our time in the camper outside of work is spent for one to three night trips in our beautiful state of Utah. Day trips to local lakes are also easier with a truck camper. I’m trying to learn how to catch crawfish in our local reservoirs. We just returned from three days at Quail Creek Reservoir, which was fabulous.
I love to hike, but my kids not so much, so we take turns finding fun activities that we all enjoy. We have tried geocaching together, which was great fun. We are really enjoying paddle boarding and reservoir kayaking this summer. Any time spent outdoors is fine with me.
Above: Camping at Albion Basin, a National Forest campground near Salt Lake City, Utah
I’ve never heard of Albion Basin. Is that a boondocking spot or a state park?
Albion Basin is just past the Alta ski area. It is a National Forest campground, and you need reservations because it is very popular. It’s 45-minutes from my house to the camping area. It’s gorgeous! There are beautiful wildflowers and lots of hiking. We almost always see a moose there. It’s so close to town and the scenery is gorgeous. I like to go at the end of August before school starts.
Above: Annual overnight to Albion Basin, Utah
Thank you for your inspiring story. Your use of a truck camper as a quarantine vehicle at the hospitals is just amazing. Is there anything you’d like to add?
I am sort of handy, but I don’t do well with electrical stuff, though I just finished my first plumbing job. I really want a truck camper mentor to hang out with and teach me. I’d love to meet fellow TCM readers in the Salt Lake City area who enjoy working on their truck campers.
One of my favorite relaxing activities is to spend time maintaining my camper.
Sara Jane Pieper’s Rig
Truck: Ford F-350, Lariat, 4×4, short bed
Camper: 2014 Northstar Adventurer
Tie-Downs and Turnbuckles: Torklift Fastguns
Suspension: Torklift Stableloads